Vinoth Ramachandra

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.”

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?



February 2021