Vinoth Ramachandra

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. (https://www.prolifehumanists.org/secular-case-against-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.”

Stephen Spielberg’s film Lincoln (2012)- the most intellectually demanding of all his films- is set in the closing months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, when he is struggling to push through Congress a 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that would abolish slavery. There are fierce debates within his own cabinet as to whether the Amendment implies that “blacks are equal to whites” or whether “blacks are equal to whites before the law”. The moderates in his party favour the latter interpretation, while the radicals urge the former.

All talk of “equality” begs the question “equality in relation to what?” Clearly not all human beings are equal in their economic status, physical fitness, intellectual endowments or artistic abilities. And, in most societies and cultures untouched by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, human inequality has been taken for granted as a fact of life. It has never been seen as a problem that needs to be addressed. In traditional Greco-Roman philosophies, some are born to rule and others to be subservient. Those outside the civilization of Greece are “barbarians”, “savages”. In the dominant Hindu and Buddhist schools of thought, no less than in folk religious culture, inequality is the just outworking of the cosmic unfolding of karma and rebirth.

If, like the radical Republicans of Lincoln’s day, we urge that “blacks and whites are equal in their humanness”, we are invoking a concept of intrinsic human worth or dignity. This worth is independent of a person’s age, colour, origin or capacities. But, then, all who insist on “abortion on demand” or “euthanasia for the severely disabled” are denying such an equality, for the unborn yet developing human person and the incapacitated human adult are equal to us in their humanness.

It is because the notion of the intrinsic and equal worth of human persons, which undergirds equal respect before the law, is a difficult concept to justify on strictly secularist/naturalist grounds that this deeper question is side-stepped in the polarized discourse about equality in the Western media. But it is a question that needs to be raised, provided it does not deflect attention from the systemic/structural causes of racial and other forms of injustice that need to be addressed.

I have often commented in this Blog on the hypocrisy and one-sidedness that often attends talk about “equality” and “diversity” in the media and academic popularizers. There is a long history of “scientific racism”, encouraged by Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man which influenced nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial government policies. It was Christians, both indigenous and foreign missionaries, who countered such arguments. This is rarely mentioned in undergraduate history-of-science courses.

Racist attitudes and violence are not confined to chauvinist “whites”. One of the police officers indicted in George Floyd’s murder was from a Laotian ethnic community. Afro-Caribbean friends tell me that they have often encountered more hostility, even contempt, among so-called “Asians” in the US and UK than among Caucasians. India and China are perhaps the most racist societies on earth, as any black student or visitor to these countries will testify. The Indian caste-system may have originated in notion of religious purity/impurity and even of occupation, but it is clearly linked to colour: the lower-castes and those outside the system altogether are the darker-skinned. Indian TV carries ads for face creams that promise to “make your skin fairer” and in all Bollywood films you will never find a dark-skinned hero or heroine, but only villains. Why are there no calls to ban such ads, and even outlaw Bollywood movies on Netflix?

At the height of the Charlottesville violence by “white supremacists” in July 2017, the New York Times published a tweet from Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the U.S Army, which stated: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.” Really? The US army had separate black and white units well into the 1950s, with black units always led by white officers.

If city mayors and state governors in the US are going to expunge all memorials to Americans who were “pro-slavery” or “white supremacists”, they should begin with Thomas Jefferson and shut down the University of Virginia.

Jefferson himself was a hypocrite. He owned over 600 slaves at one time, despite claiming, famously, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (1776) that it was a “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson described blacks as intrinsically and permanently inferior to whites. He hid his affair with his enslaved house maid by whom he fathered at least six children and shunned all financial responsibility for them. He also advocated the idea of forced repatriation of blacks to Africa, arguing that it was far preferable to the mixing of races in the USA. As for his presidential orders regarding the harsh treatment of native Indian Americans, this too never appears in American popular histories.

Countering racism has also to go beyond confronting the ideology of racism. I may not believe in the ideology that says “whites are superior human beings to blacks”, but if I live within and benefit from a socio-economic-political system that has been constructed on such a premise, I share in the guilt of racism. In many countries, the entire criminal justice system, with its disproportionate sentencing of ethnic minorities, needs to be overhauled. And what about the hiring practices of elite universities, the non-registration of many voters, lack of access to healthcare, and other sources of social exclusion?

Racism, like sexism, is more about systemic injustice than personal attitudes. But personal attitudes also matter as they are what shape our informal social relations. Global media and national educational curricula are far from egalitarian in their agendas. A Martian who scans news media on the planet Earth will conclude that, whatever some national Constitutions may say, the lives of “celebrities” and super-rich oligarchs and tycoons are far more valuable than others.

Dismantling memorials to slave-owners and racist imperialists was long overdue. But dismantling unjust structures and stopping modern, rampant forms of slavery worldwide (human trafficking, bonded agricultural labour) is far more important. And why cannot American governors erect monuments in places where black folk were lynched by mobs or First Nations tribes massacred by US cavalry? And why are there no slavery museums in southern cities comparable to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC? These will not eradicate racism, of course, just as Germany’s acknowledgment of its past has not entirely eradicated neo-Nazism in that country. But it will go a long way towards dispelling the ignorance over history that undergirds fear and racist politics.

I am delighted to announce the publication of my new book Sarah’s Laughter, four months ahead of schedule.

Information about the book can be found HERE

I have waived my author royalties in order to make the book available, in both print and e-versions, to as many readers as possible, especially in the non-Western world. The book can be purchased from the above website, as well as from Kobo, Book Depository, Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble. (Both Langham and Book Depository ship free worldwide). The book was written for people who struggle with doubt, pain, the loss of hope, and the questions that pastors and theologians typically evade.

I am personally embarrassed to promote my own books, so would appreciate your help in doing so in the circles in which you move, whether they be churches, university groups, seminaries or parachurch organizations.

Interestingly, the Biblical writers know nothing of apologetics. In the face of innocent human suffering, they don’t defend God. They protest to God. And if the cause of that suffering is systemic injustice or political oppression, they confront those responsible. The Christian church has practised this two-fold response (albeit with glaring omissions and inconsistencies) throughout its history: lament to God and practical action on behalf of the victims. Even in the case of “natural evils” like viral pandemics and floods, I have often pointed out that the scale of suffering and death is greatly exacerbated by endemic corruption, political lethargy, economic inequality, and dangerous cultural and environmental practices.

In Sri Lanka, just as in some other countries, Covid-19 has played into the hands of autocratic regimes who have used the crisis to consolidate their hold on power. Constitutional safeguards have been dismantled, and the rule of law replaced by Presidential diktat. The President, a former army commander who assumed power in October last year, was inserting his army cronies into all government departments before the crisis hit. The current army commander was appointed as head of the task force to control the response to Covid-19.

The country was facing both economic ruin and the threat of military dictatorship, and so the pandemic served as a convenient scapegoat for economic mismanagement and as a pretext for growing control by the armed forces of civilian activities. Ironically, the largest clusters of the virus have been found among armed forces personnel. The absence of free and competent journalism, coupled with the takeover of major newspapers and TV stations by the regime, leaves the public largely ignorant of the slide into despotism.

Even as I write, riots are sweeping through several American cities. While rioting and looting are always inexcusable, they are perfectly understandable. Those who decry the violence must first acknowledge the violence of the racist system of law-enforcement in the US. The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), pointed out that “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”

But he went on, in that same work, to caution: “‘When people are already dehumanized, due to the oppression they suffer, the process of their liberation must not employ the methods of dehumanization.”

Institutional racism and police brutality against coloured people long pre-date Trump, though the latter has emboldened white supremacists by his inflammatory rhetoric. Anyone familiar with Hollywood movies or the crime novels of writers like Walter Mosley know that routine police brutality is a feature of life that has rarely been questioned by whites:

“In the south if a black man killed a white man he was dead. If the police saw him on the street they shot first and asked questions… never. If he gave himself up he was killed in his cell. If the constable wasn’t a murdering man then a mob would come and lynch the poor son of a bitch. And failing all that, if a black man ever made it to trial and was convicted of killing a white man- even in self-defence, even if it was to save another white man- that convict would spend the rest of his days incarcerated. There would be no parole, no commutation of sentence, no extenuating circumstances, no time off for good behaviour.” (Walter Mosley, Cinnamon Kiss, Orion Books, 2006)

Racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system have not been confined to the American south. Ken Wytsma writes: “More African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, and more are unable to vote than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men; estimates indicate that black men have a one in three chance of going to prison in their lifetime.” (The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, InterVarsity Press, 2017)

A revolutionary situation can be said to exist when an economic, political or military system is so oppressive that large numbers of people have in their hearts withdrawn consent from the system and from those who administer it. And lament (“This should not be”) is the first step in revolutionary change.

A good many of my white friends in the US (and elsewhere, I should add), with some outstanding exceptions, cannot grasp the severity of this situation. Their view of “sin” is individual, rather than structural and systemic. Because they themselves are not “racist” in their attitudes to others, they fail to empathize with the rage of those who suffer every day. So they continue to vote for politicians who simply tinker with the system rather than uproot it altogether. And they are more offended by the “tone” in which people protest than the situation which gives rise to such protest!

The German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller’s poignant lament is often quoted in these contexts of comfortable middle-class lethargy:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”

Much more on this in my book above!

One week before the Great Crash of October 1929- which precipitated the Great Depression- Irving Fisher of Yale University, perhaps the most distinguished US economist of his time, claimed that the American economy had attained a “permanently high plateau”. Three years later the national income had fallen by more than 50 per cent. No one, not a single economist, had seen it coming.

The usefulness of economics, observed that wittiest of economists, John Kenneth Galbraith, is that it provides employment for economists.

I gave the above example in my Blog post of 26 November 2011, in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis of 2008-9. Nothing seems to have changed since. Will the Covid-19 crisis spell a similar return to “business as usual” on the part of politicians, bankers and economic “experts’; or will it lead to a radical overhaul of the world’s economic and financial systems and the shallow assumptions about human behaviour on which such systems have been built?

There is no doubt that the global spread of Covid-19 has exposed the lies, hypocrisies and fault-lines that run through many of our societies. If the virus had been confined to the non-Western world, it is unlikely to have become the #1 headline in the world’s media for days on end, as has been the case since first Europe, and then the US, became the epicentre of the pandemic. Just as a receding tide exposes the debris that we would rather not see, the virus has exposed the deep health and economic inequalities within rich nations, as well as between nations. Poor economies are on the brink of collapse. And it is the poor and vulnerable communities within the rich nations that have been disproportionately affected.

It was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that lifted the American economy our of economic ruin following the Great Depression. This was a massive program of government investment in public works which put people back into work; social security for farmers and the unemployed; pension and housing schemes for the elderly; and financial reforms of Wall Street such as the Glass-Steagall Act which separated the operations of high-street banks from merchant houses (an Act that was repealed in 1999 as a result of financial lobbying).

When Bernie Sanders, in his election campaign, proposed an updated version of the New Deal, he was uniformly derided by conservative economists and politicians. “Where will the money for all this come from?” they jeered. Even his fellow-Democrats, such as the archetypal establishment figure Joe Biden, spent so much TV time portraying a vitriolic caricature of Sanders as an angry, obdurate old man who posed a socialist threat to the US’s “thriving” economy. Similarly, in the UK, the Labour Party’s election manifesto, promising increased investment in the National Health Service, a return to free university education and an end to the austerity measures of the past decade, was ridiculed by Tory campaigners who again claimed to be on the side of economic “reality”.

As soon as Covid-19 sent waves of panic across the United States, Donald Trump and his cohorts rushed through a Bill injecting a staggering $2 trillion into the economy. A quarter of that, predictably, goes to the least needy (the wealthy corporations with sufficient assets to borrow without government aid) and less than ten per cent to public services. Nevertheless, “Spend, spend, spend!” seems to be the new socialist mantra of the Right. But nobody is asking the question they put to Sanders, “Where is this money coming from?”

Similarly, in the UK, by a grim irony, Boris Johnson contracted the virus, was treated by the very health service he had planned to sell off to American “investors”, and promptly halted his pre-election Brexit tirade against foreigners (Britain’s health service is heavily dependent on foreign-born doctors and nurses). Criticism of Labour’s “inefficient” plans to revive public services that had steadily been robbed of resources by successive conservative regimes is an embarrassment to the many voters who are now belatedly expressing thanks for a public health service that is the envy of the world.

So, where does money come from? In an earlier age, money was a commodity, a precious substance used in economic exchange. Today, money is a more abstract concept. In rich nations, money is largely credit. When you go to a bank and ask for a loan, the bank doesn’t first check its deposits and reserves to see if it has enough to lend. It is not deposits that generate loans, but loans that generate deposits. Money is created by private banks “out of thin air”. The main function of a Central Bank (like the Bank of England or the Federal Reserve in the US) is to set the interest rate- to determine how much private banks can charge for the money they create. So, when governments justify public austerity by claiming that public spending diverts money from the private sector, they show that they don’t understand money. Government borrowing creates money that did not exist before.

Covid-19 has also exposed how dependent we are on those on the “underside” of our societies. The people at the frontline of the fight to protect us from the pandemic are the very people whom we routinely ignore, sometimes even revile, and- if the hiTech companies have their way- will soon be replaced by robots: those involved in social care, nurses and hospital orderlies, janitors, sales assistants, garbage collectors, undertakers, mental health workers and migrant labourers on farms and in the food industry. The bankers, CEOs, and celebrities whom the mass media normally fawn over steal way in their private jets to their private estates where they can self-isolate in luxury.

Sanders’ political career is over, but the challenge that invigorated his two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency – that governments must use wealth not to serve as Nanny to business elites but to help those people who actually need help – has to become central to economic and political thinking in the post-Covid world.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Covid-19 crisis should also shake us out of our nationalist biases and lethargy to realise the importance of working for the global common good. The same selfish inertia which has made governments pay only lip-service to the threat of global warming also lay behind those governments’ under-funding of institutions such as the WHO which has been warning us against pandemics like the present one for some time now.

When Greta Thunberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2020, she was rudely rebuffed and scorned by the US Treasury Secretary who told her to go to college and first get an education on how business runs. Who now needs to learn how business actually runs?

The novel coronavirus, now called SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19 is the illness it causes) was first identified in Wuhan, China, on late December 2019. Since then it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. The mortality rate appears to be higher than that of the seasonal flu in the northern hemisphere, but much depends on the available healthcare system, as well as a person’s age, and underlying health conditions.

Scientists aren’t certain where the virus originated, though they know that coronaviruses (which also include SARS and MERS) are passed between animals and humans. Research comparing the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 with a viral database suggests it originated in bats. Since no bats were sold at the seafood market in Wuhan at the disease’s epicenter, researchers suggest an intermediate animal, possibly the pangolin (an endangered mammal) is responsible for the transmission to humans. There are currently no treatments for the disease, but labs are working on various types of treatments, including a vaccine.

The extreme measures taken by some governments- closing of borders, cancelling flights, shutting down schools, shops and restaurants- are understandable. But I cannot help wondering whether, in this case, the treatment may sometimes be worse than the disease. A narrowly nationalistic outlook (let’s protect our people) may endanger others elsewhere. Many poor, even in the rich world, live on daily wages. For many poor countries that depend heavily on tourism or the foreign labour market, a slowing of the economy will spell the collapse of their already fragile health systems, resulting in greater suffering and deaths not only from COVID-19. Surely, what is required is a globally co-ordinated response. And, in the USA, I can confidently predict that tens of thousands of people will die of gun-related random acts of violence this year. So why not take equally drastic measures to combat what many mental health specialists, teachers and parents have identified as a public health issue of epidemic proportions?

This leads me to highlight a pandemic that is far more dangerous, in the long term, than COVID-19. It is the pandemic of racism and xenophobia that seems to be spreading at an alarming rate and has been responsible for the election of men like Trump, Putin, Johnson, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Rajapakse and others into positions of power. Much of this is fuelled by fear. COVID-19 has also brought out this fear, at the same time as others have worked tirelessly to care for victims and curtail its spread. In London, a Singaporean Chinese man was assaulted on the street and Chinese shops and restaurants boycotted. In Nairobi, even before the first case was reported, angry crowds attacked Chinese workers. Several incidents of this nature have happened elsewhere.

South Korea has been held up as a model of how countries should be responding to the crisis. But, alas, this is not transferrable to poorer nations. Instead of closing its border to China, the government employed widespread free testing, including drive-through test sites. Technology has aided the tracing of contacts, using GPS tracking. Rather than creating a total lockdown, they opted for physical distancing measures targeting transmission hot spots.

A South Korean friend of mine wrote to me recently:

“The cult called Shincheonji (meaning new heaven and earth) has been the epicenter of the epidemic. They have been using lies and deception in their outreach, and because of their secretive approaches, they didn’t want to be tracked down by the public health authorities which made the whole response extremely difficult. This bizarre case shows public responsibility of a religion. Several churches also became centres of virus infection on a smaller scale, and each case provoked public criticism. Hope we can learn our responsibility in the society through these cases.”

If indeed (and it is still a big “if”) the virus originated from close animal-human contact in public markets like in Wuhan, then it puts paid to the cultural relativist view that one must never challenge the cultural practices (including diets and dress styles) of others. (In any case, such an argument is impossible to practice consistently and is often self-serving).

Cultures and religious traditions must be open to criticism, especially when they endanger public goods. But this includes the intensive meat-eating culture of the USA which is promoted among the urban middle-classes of the global South and which involves not only the inhumane treatment of cattle and poultry, but massive rises in greenhouse emissions which also take their death toll on vulnerable populations.

Europe is currently the epicentre of COVID-19. European colonists, sailors and soldiers once spread European diseases to the peoples of South America and the South Pacific. And the misnamed “Spanish ’flu” of 1918-19 which originated in a military hospital in France was carried by debilitated French and British soldiers returning to their imperial territories. Fatality figures for that terrible pandemic range from 50 million to 100 million. We are nowhere near that with COVID-19.

All this should remind is that we belong to one world, and our destinies are bound up with one other. We cannot afford to think in narrow, nationalist categories that only generate fear of those who are different to us. If what happens in a market in China can affect us all, so does what happens in an American university laboratory or a London corporate board room.

Science cannot provide the antidote to fear, although it can go a long way towards dispelling lies and misinformation. But it’s “love that casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally and that our worth as human beings does not rest on our colour, gender, age or achievements.

I have been spending the past two-and-a-half weeks in the USA, combining public speaking with visits to friends. I am again appalled at the dreadful quality of TV in this country, especially the parochial news media. No wonder that a prominent American evangelist, George Verwer, once told me, “You must remember that Americans are an ignorant people.”

Exaggeration, no doubt. But, still, a solid core of truth. Despite having many of the finest universities and research centres in the world, large swathes of the American public (including many who study and work in such institutions) remain ignorant of their own national history, the lives of their fellow-Americans outside their circle of family and friends, what is happening in the world beyond their shores, and how American policies promote injustice and suffering elsewhere. This applies, not least, to the depressing number of white American Christians who support politicians like Donald Trump.

I had the great fortune to listen last Sunday to Mark Noll, the eminent historian, as he spoke at a Sunday School class in his church on the topic of Christian involvement in US politics from the Civil War to the 1950s. Much of what he said was familiar to me; but I was intrigued by two stories he shared which may, I believe, be of contemporary relevance.

The “radical Republicans” of the late nineteenth-century, Noll observed, were the radical Democrats of today. They pushed through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, thus empowering black folk, while it was the Democrats who had not only supported slavery but wanted government to get off their backs. The strong black churches that emerged after the Civil War were all solidly Republican. In 1960, the two presidential candidates Kennedy and Nixon were urged by their advisors to reach out to the black community. Nixon refused, while Kennedy did. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father, who had been a staunch Nixon supporter- because “blacks should vote for the party of Abe Lincoln”- switched sides. Ever since then blacks have been overwhelmingly Democrat.

The second story concerns the Temperance movement of the nineteenth century. This was largely the work of white women who recognised alcoholism as the source of many social evils, not least the male abuse of women and children. Francis Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873 was a remarkable woman who combined evangelistic preaching with educational reform, lobbying for women’s voting rights and agitation against drink. As the century progressed, drunkenness was also seen as disrupting industrial production and efficiency.

In common with other evangelical Christians in the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, the WCTU and other temperance groups saw personal discipline and moral transformation as the way to social transformation. But their popular success made them overreach. Not only did some temperance advocates become more extremist, resorting to violence against bars and even pharmacies that sold alcohol, but they spread misinformation (e.g. that a single drink could make a man an alcoholic) and pushed for the federal prohibition of drink. When the latter was achieved in the 1920s, all it did was to drive liquor consumption underground and increase the power of the Mafia.

Might there be an analogy with the “pro-life” movement in the US today? Neither personal discipline nor punitive laws, important as they are, can effect lasting social transformation. Cultures need to change and oppressive socio-economic structures dismantled. And Christians, instead of always trying to use the apparatus of the state to impose their vision of human well-being, need to take on the intellectual challenge of articulating that vision in meaningful and winsome ways to the wider public.

Even if (the unlikely) legal change does come, I hope it will not be a return to the age of back-street abortions. And if the dominant secular culture remains unconvinced, “pro-life” would be seen as tied to a right-wing political agenda and will only deepen the popular resentment towards Christians. We would have won a battle only to have lost the larger war. Christians should work for cultural change which would make abortion unthinkable, by most people and in most circumstances, whether or not it is illegal.

For many peoples around the world- in countries as diverse as Britain, India and Sri Lanka- the political landscape for the new decade is bleak. Racist nationalisms, right-wing economic fundamentalism, outdated left-wing rhetoric, and the corruption of public media have suffocated political culture. Collective moral imagination seems to have atrophied. The recent Madrid COP 25 summit showed, yet again, how governments pay only lip-service to tackling global warming. National interest, so narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.

It has been left to non-state actors, mainly students and other young people (the so-called “millennials”) to champion publicly the rights of vulnerable peoples, whether women suffering domestic abuse in France (the Nous Toutes campaign), poor communities threatened by climate change (Greta Thunberg and her numerous followers), dissidents facing arbitrary detention and deportation (Hong Kong) or ethnic and religious minorities (India). In our digitized world, protesters in Ecuador and Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia have been learning from each other as they stand up to tyranny or fight for more economic equality.

If these millennials can move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a broader vision of social and cultural transformation, grounded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest, they may provide the seeds of hope for the new decade. But that is a big “If”.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights speaks of us being “members of a human family”. But the Declaration assumes that national states will be the protectors and promoters of those human rights. That has not been the case in the seven decades since the Declaration was written and accepted by the members of the UN. States, not least the permanent members of the Security Council, have been the biggest violaters of the natural rights that attach to every human person on the planet.

While the USA has postured itself as the global champion of human rights around the world, not only has it protected and armed to the teeth some of the biggest rogue regimes, but human rights language has had comparatively little purchase within its borders. Congress passes resolutions expressing solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong, but turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of the Occupying movement by the police in many American cities. It condemns the harsh repression of the Uighurs by the Chinese regime and of the Rohingiyas by the Burmese. But it totally ignores the massive cruelties of the American criminal justice system, with its racist biases, disproportionate sentencing, and permanent disenfranchisement and social stigmatization (in many American states) of those who have served a prison sentence.

In a perceptive essay, written some two decades ago, the social anthropologist Talal Asad compared the language invoked by the militant activist Malcolm X in the 1960s with that used by the Rev. Martin Luther King. In a famous speech criticising the civil rights movement, Malcolm X called on his fellow African Americans to resort to human rights as a way of transcending the limitations of the American state.

“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And so long as it’s civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”

“Human rights,” continued Malcolm X, “are something you were born with. They are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights you can take them to the world court.” By expanding the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, Malcolm X held out the hope of bringing the plight of African Americans before the UN General Assembly and a world court.

This was never realised, of course; but as Talal Asad observes, the language is remarkable because of its faithful commitment, unlike so much Western liberal practice, to the conception of human rights. Such rights do not receive their legitimacy from states, although it is states that are their principal guarantors.

Although Malcom X’s appeal had little impact on American society and its political culture, another language that overlapped with human rights discourse was deployed by Martin Luther King to greater effect. This was the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible coupled with the popular founding narrative of the American nation. However sceptical King was of the supposedly “Christian” origins of the nation and the faith of its founders, he could still publicly draw on the language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the narrative of liberation that went with them. Addressing fellow African Americans, he declared: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to the great wells of democracy, which were dug deeply the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Unlike Malcolm X’s purely secular conception of legal justice, King’s political discourse envisioned the regeneration of the nation as a whole. He sought what he called the “Beloved Community”, a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it. While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.

Needless to say, King’s vision also failed. But it had a greater initial impact because it embedded the language of rights in a larger narrative framework, one that struck chords in American society and stirred the consciences of a white Christian population that had lost its foundational identity.

I wonder whether the contemporary political challenge remains the same? How do we defend and promote human rights, not as abstract concepts and without resorting to merely legalistic language, but as imaginative visions that are embedded in counter-narratives that tap into the (largely religious) cultures of our respective nations?

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