Vinoth Ramachandra

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“Hope begins with the ruin of our expectations.”

Both in print and in talks, I have often quoted these words from the Sri Lankan theologian and ecumenical leader, Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970). They were words that sustained me during the 30-year civil war this country experienced and, at the close of which, I began writing this Blog. And I continue to cling to them in the continuing darkness that envelopes us and other nations.

Many languages do not have a word for hope. And even in English we have a tendency to identify hope with optimism or simply our aspirations. We pin our hopes on programs, parties or politicians and so are continually disillusioned. Christian hope, unlike optimism or mere wishful thinking, is based on the paradoxical triumph of the cross of Christ and Easter promise. The God of the biblical narrative is a God of surprises, working in unexpected places and through unexpected people. The light of God’s mercy continues to shine in the midst of the darkness.

The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka heralded the deification of the then President and his opportunistic brothers (the Rajapakshe family). They fell from grace in 2015, but made a spectacular comeback in the presidential elections of 2019 and the parliamentary elections the following year, largely as a result of the Easter Sunday carnage which they turned into both anti-Muslim hysteria and promises of ensuring “national security”.

Some of us suspected that the attacks had been conceived by elements in military intelligence that had remained loyal to the ousted President’s brother, the former defence minister, and that the Islamist bombers were merely their tools. Evidence regarding this has been hitherto suppressed. But a gullible and largely docile public gave the Rajapakse family a two-thirds majority in parliament which they promptly used to emasculate parliament itself and turn the Presidency into a virtual dictatorship. The President, Prime Minster, Finance Minister and two other cabinet positions were all occupied by a single family. This was nepotism and gangsterism at its most farcical!

Then came Covid-19. Sri Lanka’s economy has depended heavily on tourism, tea, textiles and foreign remittances from workers abroad. All these were crippled by the pandemic. The crisis was exacerbated by economic mismanagement, political arrogance and rampant corruption. By the beginning of this year, foreign exchange reserves had all been squandered and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. The regime did what it only knows to do: run with a begging bowl to China and India. These have not been sufficient to meet the severe shortages of medicines and medical equipment, food and fuel. The country has, for the first time in its history, defaulted on its external debt and is facing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

The ray of hope is that the economic crisis has led to a political crisis. Deprivation has affected all levels of society and finally opened the eyes of Sri Lankan people to the way they have been colluding, some actively but the majority through passive subservience, with the country’s impoverishment. Public street protests, calling on the President to resign and all his brothers to get of out politics, have erupted all over the island. What is remarkable is the way, for the first time in my living memory, the protests have united people from all walks of life and all ethnic and religious communities.

We are experiencing our own Occupying movement and Arab Spring. And we can only pray that it will be more successful than the latter.

Ridding the government of the Rajapakses, coupled with constitutional changes to restore democratic accountability, will not by themselves rebuild this country. Over the past few decades, many public institutions have been stripped of people with the necessary competence and moral integrity. Highly educated professionals, whether judges, doctors, lawyers or academics have been exposed as shamefully kowtowing to the political regime, even benefitting from their corruption. Businesses and banks have also profited by being bedfellows with the Rajapakshe brothers. We need a deeper transformation in the moral culture of this country.

And, of course, there is the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that has ruled this country since 1948 and which the Rajapakses embodied and entrenched. Unlike the religious philosophy called Buddhism which attracts many foreign tourists who seek in the East an alternative to the barren institutional Christianity of the West, Sinhala-Buddhism is a political ideology that undermines many of the moral tenets of Buddhism itself (just as the so-called Christian nationalism of Russia and the USA is the very antitheses of genuine Christianity). The Rajapakses and their political and business cronies fanned the flames of ethnic hatred, rejected human rights and regard for international law, and turned to shamans and astrologers for guidance in matters both public and personal.

Regime change is our immediate need. But it will only plunge us back into the mire if it does not also lead to a wide-ranging, forthright, moral questioning of how we have come to be where we are today.

Several followers of this Blog have asked me why I have not commented on the horrendous tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

There are two principal reasons for my silence. The first is resistance to the seductive social media temptation to rush to comment on situations of which one is largely ignorant, let alone unable to change. Others closer to the ground realities, or far more knowledgeable than I am on Putin’s imperial ambitions, have flooded the news media with their “expert” analyses. Why add to the noise, unless one has something (fairly) fresh to say?

But, secondly, regular readers of this Blog would have observed that several of my repeated themes converge on what is happening in Europe today. For instance, there is the perennial double standard and selective outrage of global news media, Western governments (and, sadly, even Western Churches) when it comes to reporting on wars, conflicts and the plight of refugees. My last post was on the challenge that non-White theologies and perspectives pose to the racist underpinning of so much cultural and political life in North America and Europe.

Why does the war in Myanmar, for example, not register the same “news-worthiness” as Ukraine, despite the army there being as brutal as the Russians and guilty of so many war crimes? Why has Palestine, a country occupied by a foreign military power since 1967 (if not 1948), been forgotten- only to resurface in the media whenever a Jewish settler or soldier is killed? If Ukrainians were not blonde and blue-eyed, would their plight have occasioned the outpouring of compassion across Europe that is being celebrated in parts of the global media? And was there any political criticism, before the current war, of NATO’s military expansion and the short-sightedness of Western governments in relation to what may have been valid Russian fears?

It may be awkward, even offensive to many, to raise such questions. And the polarizing propensity of social media deter people further. Will what they say be used to belittle the suffering of Ukrainians, and even to blame it all on the West? Or, if I openly express my admiration for the courage of ordinary Russians, like the news editor Marina Ovsyannikova, who are standing up to the Russian propaganda machine at great risk to their lives, will this endanger the lives of the Russians whom I know?

Then there is the targeting of the assets of Russian oligarchs, companies and Putin’s henchmen. While this attracts huge media attention, it is unlikely to make much of a dent in their fortunes for the simple reason that much of the latter are hidden in the murky world of the “offshore” global financial system (of which I have had much to say on this Blog over the years). Russia has the world’s largest volume of dark money hidden abroad, about $1 trillion, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its national GDP.

The Panama papers, followed by the Pandora Papers, exposed the staggering levels of wealth secreted away in tax havens and money laundering centres in the Caribbean (several of which are US or British protectorates) and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention anonymous, numbered bank accounts in other jurisdictions, including Europe and Southeast Asia. It is because Western corporations, politicians and the “super-rich”- and their equivalents in the rest of the world- benefit from this corrupt financial system that little or no action has been taken to clean it up and return wealth that has been siphoned away from poorer nations.

I live in a country that is experiencing its worst economic crisis in living memory. It stems from a combination of factors: economic mismanagement and incompetence, the collapse of tourism because of the Covid pandemic, corruption and a poor tax regime, heavy dependence on China which lends at excessive interest rates. The crisis is now exacerbated by the Ukrainian war, as fuel prices soar and trade with Ukraine and Russia (which, together, account for twenty per cent of all our tea exports) grinds to a halt. I am sure there are many other small countries facing similar plights, but which are rarely reported in the Western media which claim to be global media. Which international agency will track and freeze the illicit fortunes of the Sri Lankan politicians and businessmen that have been salted away in “offshore” tax havens? Will the Ukraine war be a wake-up call to the UN or the IMF to overhaul the banking system, strengthening transparency laws and closing all the existing loopholes? I doubt it.

Henry McNeal Turner, one of the early leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA stated in 1895 that “God is a Negro”.  This had the form of a provocative racist comment but was intended to subvert the taken-for-granted perspective of so many white people that God was White, that the interests, values and practices of Whites constituted normative Christianity. Turner challenged that incipient, and often naked, racism; the White Church had prostituted the Christian faith to notions of White supremacy and needed to recover the radical, prophetic logic of the gospel of Christ.

Black theology- to be distinguished from various African theologies- seeks to give voice to the experiences of Africans in North America, the Caribbean and Europe, many of whom are descendants of slaves. The North Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath (racial segregation, disenfranchisement, discrimination, racial profiling) are part of their cultural legacy. Black theology begins with that ongoing experience and asks how God is revealed within that experience and what insights and liberative practices emerge from it. Black people want to be known in their Blackness. For God meets us in our particularities.

In such a discourse, Black/White are spelt in upper case to signify not primarily skin colour but ethno-cultural realities. Unlike the earlier Enlightenment-influenced racism which was based on a dubious “race science”, ethno-cultural racism stems from unquestioned assumptions about the superiority and normalcy of White Euro-American standards of rationality, morality, political relevance or aesthetic excellence.

In a recent book, the Nigerian-born British journalist Chine McDonald observes: “In order to understand the internalised inferiority that exists among many Black men and women, it is important to revisit the ways in which Black bodies have been portrayed for centuries. From being likened to beasts closer to apes than humans, to bodies being seen as property and brutalised, to being put on display in European zoos, the Black body has often been seen as lacking in beauty. At times, as we have seen, it has been questioned whether or not Black people possess the imago Dei– whether we are made in the image of God.” (God is Not White, 2021)

I am often amused when many of my white friends, who are certainly not racists, tell me that they are “colour-blind”. They are unaware of their own colour. They have few non-white friends, don’t know their non-white neighbours, the vast majority of the books they read, the speakers they listen to, and the films they watch are all white. But these do not register on their consciousness unless somebody points it out.

When Caribbean migrants, many of them Christians, arrived in the UK on the ship Windrush in 1948, in response the UK government’s invitation to help re-build the country after the Second World War, they expected to be welcomed as sisters and brothers in the Christian churches. To their shock and amazement, they were largely ignored or shunned as “foreigners”. They were forced to form their own black churches. The story has not changed much in the last 70 years.

In Europe, no less than in the US, churches are mostly mono-ethnic and so propagate individualistic “gospels”. White church leaders may occasionally invite African or Asian leaders to their pulpits; but they make sure that what is going to be said is will not disturb them. When the Church is no longer a mosaic of cultures, where people come together to learn across differences and to enrich one another with their differences, the Church is no longer the sign of the kingdom of God, but just another religious club.

I once asked the head of an American organization whether he would help promote my books amongst his staff. He replied, first, that he was sadden by the fact that many of his staff did not read serious books. But he also said, “There are things in your books which we Americans find difficult to accept.” I was taken aback. All I could blurt out was, “There are things that Jesus says that I find difficult to accept.” Perhaps what I should have asked is, “Do we read authors who simply repeat and reinforce what we believe, or do we read in order to learn and be transformed?”

The organization I work with (IFES) was founded in 1947 at a meeting of international Christian leaders at Harvard University. Its “statement of faith” was drafted by a small group of white males from fairly privileged backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, its only statement about humanity is that we are “sinful”. However, that is not where the biblical narrative begins, and if questioned, the framers would undoubtedly have agreed that we are all creatures made in the image of God. But they were shaped by their narrow White Euro-American theological context where combatting a “liberal” denial of sin was what was considered paramount. Yet, today as well as then, to affirm that all people irrespective of sex, age, ethnicity, sexuality or intellectual ability are of intrinsic and equal worth is a revolutionary teaching, not least in bioethics and our racist, sexist and class/caste-ridden societies.

Fortunately, the centre of gravity of the Church, and of IFES, has shifted massively towards the global South. And IFES has produced a number of courageous non-Western leaders who have developed theologies that have sought to recover the central biblical affirmations of God’s “solidarity” with the poor and the oppressed and the call of the Gospel to justice and reconciliation, while at the same time exposing the limits and blind-spots of some popular “liberation theologies”.

While Black theology rightly begins with the Black experience, it becomes open to self-destruction when it turns dogmatic and (in the words of one of its fathers, the American James Cone) it “knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.” Why should the raw reality of oppression be of theological concern, unless we believe – on the basis of other authorities- that oppression is incompatible with the worship of a God who hates injustice and is outraged at such a state of affairs? And why should an action that oppresses the weak and helpless be a compelling, indeed conclusive, reason against performing it? It is difficult to account for such a moral stance within a purely naturalist view of our human existence.

It is only when our particularities, our contextual theologies, engage one another respectfully and critically within the wider Body of Christ, that our moral and theological horizons expand. Otherwise we remain imprisoned within either a bland universal rhetoric (“We are colour-blind”, “All Lives Matter”, etc) or polarizing culture wars.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master- that’s all.”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

I was reminded of this well-known exchange when a friend showed me the cover of this week’s Economist celebrating the spread of assisted dying legislation. The latter claims the “right” of terminally ill patients to demand from doctors help in killing themselves. Doctors then have a legal obligation to honour such a right.

It changes the meaning of “medical care”, turning doctors into partners in intentional killing.

A foreigner observing current Western public culture is struck by the glaring contradictions on display. Individual autonomy or “choice” is elevated to an absolute status when issues such as abortion, assisted suicide or gender and sexuality are discussed. We are regarded as solitary monads whose lives and developmental capacities are self-generated and self-possessed, and the choices we make do not affect others. Hence the putative “right to take one’s own life” or the “right to design my baby” or “the right to decide my sexual identity”.

At the same time, some celebrity scientists and popular science journalists never tire of intoning that free-will is an illusion, the “autonomous self” a myth. We are all at the mercy of our neurones or genes. In the oft-quoted words of the late Francis Crick, “‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 2000). While smuggling in a naturalist metaphysics, neurological or genetic reductionism is proclaimed as the scientific acid that dissolves all metaphysics. Of course, the purveyors of such narratives exempt themselves from such determinism. They do not really believe it themselves; for if they did, they cannot logically take credit for their discoveries. We would have to hand over their Nobel awards, royalties and salaries to their genes and brain structures.

However, both the rhetoric of “choice” and that of naturalist determinism stand side-by-side within the contemporary Western medical profession, and the contradiction is blithely ignored.

Moreover, the advertising industry spends billions of dollars devising clever videos, slogans and sound bites that manipulate the choices consumers make. And we have learned from feminism that in a patriarchal society women’s choices are rarely free and well-informed, but  shaped by men’s expectations, definitions and decrees.

The toxic polarization that is called “culture wars” in North America is spreading globally via social media. Eschewing respectful dialogue and argument, both sides seek power over the other through legislation. After all, if something is legal, the general public assumes it must be right. Legal rights can even be proclaimed as if they were universal human rights.

Behind the talk of respecting “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in a growing number of Western countries, a selective filter operates. Sexual identities and practices are regarded as fluid, amoral, defended either on the grounds of “freedom of choice” or “this is who I am”. Objections to men claiming to be women are dismissed as “transphobia”, but a white man presenting himself as a coloured would be ridiculed, even prosecuted. Polyamorous relations are okay, but polygamy is not.

In both the US and UK, economic class remains the most powerful determinant of a child’s educational attainment or taking to street crime, but class resists all deconstruction. The rich and the poor within nations are physically and socially segregated. The poor and the disabled are largely invisible and inaudible. Social “inclusiveness” doesn’t often apply to them. (Pressure to abort disabled fetuses is the other side of the “inclusive society”).

Further, even as talk of “inclusiveness” and “equality” reigns supreme within these nations, so does the barrier of nationality. Observe the way nationalistic mind-sets have been so apparent during the Covid pandemic and the COP26 summit.

So, suppose that I were to claim: “I have a right to a British or American identity because I speak English better than most of the inhabitants of these nations and my Sri Lankan identity was not chosen but imposed on me at birth.” Would such a rights-claim be recognized? Clearly not. But why not, if I’m as uncomfortable in my Sri Lankan identity even as another may be uncomfortable in her female body?

Postmodernism has indeed lent a voice to some humiliated and marginalized groups, and for that we should be grateful. But in its more extreme manifestations, it undermines every effort at global resistance to the status quo by replacing the transformation of the material conditions in which people live with language-correction, and mocking notions of objective knowledge and moral truths that transcend culture and context.

COP26 has reminded us that for most of the world’s human and non-human inhabitants, a “right to acquire resources necessary to live” is more fundamental than an alleged “right to die in the way I choose”. Those European Christians who encouraged the former right were the architects of human rights charters, the builders of national welfare states and health services, and pioneers in palliative care and the Hospice movement. Human dignity and inter-dependence were not prised apart, but seen as mutually constitutive. Chipping away steadily at its (predominantly) Judaeo-Christian moral heritage has thus left late modern Western culture oscillating between a Greco-Roman fatalism and a naked, Nietzschean will-to-power.

Either way, Humpty Dumpty’s conclusion is a foretaste of things to come.

What has artificial/machine intelligence (AI) to do with environmental destruction and global warming?

What goes into the making of such systems?

The language of “cloud computing”, “virtual reality” and “cyberspace” has inured us into thinking that the web and AI systems are floating in an ethereal, other-worldly sphere that is divorced from physical bodies and their natural environments.

In previous posts I have written about how AI is not as artificial or intelligent as many imagine it to be. It is part of an extractive late-modern capitalist economy that strip-mines the Internet for all our personal data, just as strip-mining for coal and mineral resources were the foundation of early-modern capitalism, and then feeding this mass data into devices that manipulate and manage us in ways more powerful than all earlier methods of surveillance and social control. Data is the new Capital. Also, like nineteenth-century robber barons, AI development is largely in the hands of a few hi-tech giants in the US and China, who wield concentrated, unaccountable power.

The giddy “hype” that attended the dawn of the Information Age has now been replaced by sober soul-searching by the more reflective practitioners in the field. With regard to AI, the racist, sexist and other biases inherent in training data sets and many algorithms have been exposed. Employees of Amazon, Google and Facebook have publicly complained about the dehumanizing nature of much work in these companies, and -given their scale of operations- the difficulty of regulating them. They are asking the basic questions: Who is making these AI systems and why? What are the effects on the planet as well as on “ordinary” peoples’ lives?

One such prophetic voice is Kate Crawford’s new, deeply-researched book Atlas of AI: Power, Politics and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. “Exploitative forms of work exist at all stages of the AI pipeline,” Crawford notes, “from the mining sector…to the software side, where distributed workforces are paid pennies per microtask…. Workers do the repetitive tasks that backstop claims of AI magic-but they rarely receive credit for making the systems function.”

Her fascinating tour of the world of AI begins with a reminder that strip-mining is more than a metaphor for the plundering of our data on the Internet: it literally is what supports the development of AI. For instance, all our smart phones and laptop computers depend on lithium in their batteries, and lithium reserves will disappear within the next twenty years.

The “cloud” takes up a vast amount of land. The world’s largest data farm is in Langfang, China, and covers 6.3 million square feet, the equivalent of 110 football fields. The obsessive drive to collect ever-larger data sets in order to “train” machine language algorithms means that the computing industry is carbon intensive and could make up 14 percent of all greenhouse emissions by 2040- about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst calculated that the carbon emissions required to build and train a single natural language processing system was about five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car.

For an interview with Kate Crawford on her book, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfGxh2_Jkds

So, we tend to forget that, like everything else humans do, our “virtual” communications are not ethereal but embedded in physical objects: power stations, data centres, undersea cables, overhead satellites, batteries and cooling systems. Inside every wind turbine, smart phone, medical scanner and electric car are minerals known as rare earths.

This small group of 17 elements is in extraordinary demand, but the supply is limited to China and Australia. Extracting rare earths is a difficult and dirty business, typically involving the use of sulphuric and hydrofluoric acids and the production of vast amounts of highly toxic waste. Gold is also an element common in smartphones, primarily to make connectors. But gold mining is a major cause of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Extraction of gold from the earth also generates waste rich in cyanide and mercury, two highly toxic substances that can contaminate drinking water and fish, with serious implications for human health.

It is unlikely that AI systems or smart phones will feature on the agenda of the COP26 conference next month on climate change.

It is not only the environmental costs of our device-dependence that we forget. Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, laments the fact that “People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.”

He observes: “We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good… The attribution of intelligence to machines, crowds of fragments, or other nerd deities obscures more than it illuminates. When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful.  People already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a digital device or online service is hard to use. Treating computers as intelligent, autonomous entities ends up standing the process of engineering on its head. We can’t afford to respect our own designs so much.” (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, 2010)

There is nothing new in the way engineers take the most advanced machines of their day as models and analogies for human functioning. But there is a short (though calamitous) step from modelling to identification. We then imagine that machines which help us perform certain functions have those functions themselves. When we speak of “clocks telling the time”, what we mean is just that they enable us (conscious human persons) to tell the time. The philosopher Raymond Tallis refers to the “fallacy of the displaced epithet”. Walking sticks don’t actually walk, and running shoes don’t run. The same applies to “radar searching for aircraft”, “telescopes discovering black holes” or “smart phones remembering our appointments”: they do not literally search, discover or remember. If there were no conscious human persons using these prosthetic tools, these activities would not happen.

The lesson: pay attention to language, and ask questions about technology- for every benefit to some, who bears the costs?

The closing decade of the last millennium saw a flood of books announcing the dawn of a new “global village” as the speed of transportation and information flows compressed space and time and gathered the peoples of the world into one happy family under the arch of liberal democracy and global capitalism.

“The world is flat”, intoned Thomas Friedman, the New York Times guru, as he jet-hopped from one luxury hotel to another, canvassing the tastes of local cultural elites.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 (11/9 in American style) was possibly the first live global media event. Glued to their TV sets, millions shared the emotions of a continent liberated from brutal oppression by a popular tsunami of non-military resistance. For political pundits like Francis Fukuyama, a Rand corporation protégé who became an overnight celebrity on the US lecture circuit, the imploding of Soviet communism ushered in an age of international integration. In a now infamous comment, he proclaimed:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such- that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and universalization of Western Liberal Democracy as the final form of human government.” (National Interest, Summer 1989)

Since the whole world-or the world that really mattered- had now embraced free-market capitalism and liberal democracy, ideological conflict was now a thing of the past. Of course there would be those awkward “trouble-spots” around the world (the “Iraqs and Ruritanias”, as Fukuyama put it in a later essay) which refused to accept the New World Order, and critical intellectuals everywhere who still indulged in Canute-like gestures to fend off the tidal waves of change. But they could be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

For those of us consigned to live in the “Iraqs and Ruritanias”, the world looks rather different.

If decisions in Wall Street can affect the lives of those in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, then decisions made in the latter can affect Wall Street. Americans woke up to the reality of the dark face of globalization on that fateful morning of 11 September 2001. The collapse of the Twin Towers was, unlike the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an act of unspeakable horror. We were again glued to our TV sets and laptop screens, voyeurs of suffering, exposed to endless re-runs of what was to become the defining “media moment” for the next decade.

9/11 was media-packaged as an epochal “Event”, not simply another day in the long history of human brutality and suffering.

It was immediately located within a mythic narrative of “unprovoked terror” and the loss of American innocence (“They hated us for what we are”). For multitudes ignorant of their own history, let alone the history of other nations, the new normal of random, meaningless terror stalking their streets and airspace was enough to support their government’s shredding of liberal democracy’s constitutional safeguards against the abuses of power. National Security became the new god. The Patriot Act, torture, and the dragnet surveillance of entire communities became acceptable overnight. Terror was to be fought with terror.

The subsequent military adventures  by US and UK governments left over a million Iraqis (who had nothing at all to do with 9/11) killed and the region awash in advanced weapons that fell into the hands of new militias of which ISIL was the most dangerous. Indeed, ISIL could be called George W. Bush’s baby. The latter’s post-9/11 “war on terror” was the perfect global recruiting program for new waves of Islamist terrorists.

I wrote in a Blog post on 16 June 2013: “In the United States, the massive surveillance apparatus built up since 9/11 is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It spells the degradation of the liberal state. Unaccountable government is at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and an unaccountable financial sector at the other. Iraq has already been forgotten by the American and British public, and so will Afghanistan. Bush and Blair have retreated to their private havens and lecture circuits, while the people of Iraq continue to suffer the aftermath of their destructive and illegal political actions.”

Globalization – not to mention global warming- has transformed our understanding of who our neighbour is. It is not spatial proximity that defines neighbourliness now. We are indeed our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9 ) in way that was unimaginable in previous ages. In the words of Jonathan Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, “The scope of our interconnectedness defines the radius of responsibility and concern.”(Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, London and New York: Continuum, 2002)

Despite its overwhelming military superiority, far greater than any previous imperial power, the US has not won a single major conflict since 1945. It has sought to fight communism and terrorism by making alliances with corrupt, despotic regimes and even “outsourcing” its engagement to shady US companies and military contractors.

Is it naïve to believe that the $6 trillion poured into Afghanistan over the past twenty years could have been better spent addressing global hunger, healthcare and education? Poverty does not lead to terrorism. But terrorists prey on the fears and anger of the socially excluded.

Liberal political institutions are fragile, especially in countries where large numbers go hungry and employment depends on the whims of politicians. We forget that in the West it took centuries to establish and, as recent events have shown, although Western democracies are unlikely to turn into tyrannies they can easily slip into illiberal forms of democracy as economies shrink and acts of local terrorism increase.

Moreover, many of the foundational ideas behind liberal democracy have largely Christian theological roots. And there is a body of historical evidence that those non-Western nations that have been most exposed to Protestant forms of Christianity have been more hospitable to liberal/constitutional democracy. As those historical roots are forgotten, and moral sensibilities overridden by Western governments in the interest of realpolitik  and purely “market-driven” policies, promoting it globally by means of aggressive top-down “regime change” is bound to fail. If the majority of people are indifferent to freedom or prefer a type of society in which it is subordinated to other values, no rules or legal procedures can prevent democratic versions of tyranny from sprouting.

I have a chapter in a book on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that has been published this week. I hope many of you will read the entire book, since next to climate change this may well be the biggest global political challenge we face!

The United States, which created the Internet as a defence department research project, now considers cyberspace a “domain” or potential battlefield equal in importance to land, sea, air, and outer space.

The last few weeks have seen a number of crippling cyber-attacks on the websites of prominent corporations, banks and government agencies around the world. Many of these originate in the republics of the former Soviet Union and China. And, following revelations of irresponsible Israeli exports of the malicious Pegasus software, Amnesty has highlighted surveillance technology as the biggest threat to human rights everywhere and called for a moratorium on its use.

Not too long ago, if the government wanted to know your most intimate secrets, it could seek to follow you around the clock. But that is very expensive and difficult, and could practically be deployed only against very high-priority suspects. It could search your home, but only if it first obtained a judicial warrant based on specific probable cause. It could interrogate you, but only if it had probable cause to arrest, and even then, you could assert your right to remain silent.

The Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 showed how easily the security services can go today to the  commercial services we all use- the Internet service providers, phone companies, and social networks-  and obtain from them detailed information on your every phone call, web search, e-mail, online chat, or credit card purchase, as well as your physical location whenever you are carrying your cell phone. Speech-recognition algorithms can simultaneously listen in to millions of phone calls. Computer vision algorithms can simultaneously watch millions of CCTV cameras. And algorithms that process natural language can read simultaneously millions of emails.

It has made possible dragnet surveillance of whole communities, and this is perhaps the biggest moral challenge. The Chinese are doing this with the Muslim Uighur community in the Western provinces. But the Chinese government’s data-gathering and face-recognition technology are targeting the entire population. The aim is to collect as much information as possible about every company and citizen, store it in a centralized data base, and assign a credit score to each that indicates how “trustworthy” they are. This is a draconian form of social discipline, designed to identify and punish human rights activists, political dissidents, and other so-called “anti-social elements” by denying them and their family members employment, housing, banking services, and other social benefits.  This is to date the most comprehensive effort to implement B.F. Skinner’s infamous programme of human “behaviour modification” through a conditioning system of rewards and punishments.

The big cats of the Internet industry (Google, Amazon, Facebook) regulate us more subtly, often invisibly. They mine and store our personal data in staggering quantities, and use it to customize our searches and “decide” what we see or find on the Internet. When Wall Street puts a value on Facebook or Google it is not for the services they provide, but for the data they collect and its worth to advertisers, among others.

We are learning that there are hidden costs to all those “free” services offered by the Internet giants. Indeed, we are starting to realise that when the product costs nothing, often you are the product. These are companies with some of the largest profit margins on the planet. They are not giving their services away without getting a lot in return.

Every click of the mouse, every app we choose to open, sends information about our ourselves to thousands of invisible advertisers and, often, government watchers. We are living in what Al Gore called the “stalker economy” and Shoshana Zuboff, in her best-selling book calls “surveillance capitalism”. And there is no firewall between commercial surveillance and governmental surveillance anymore.

So China is not the only country to be worried about. Anti-trust laws in the United States are impotent to reign in monopolies like the hi-tech giants that offer customers “free” services. They’ve even been allowed to enlarge their monopolies by buying up potential rivals. Google, for instance, increased its monopoly over video by buying Youtube, while Facebook bought out Instagram and WhatsApp. Yet we’ve seen that these “free” services hide the real costs to the customer, and so are anything but free.

The impact on print journalism is a cost. Our addictive devices are a cost. The narrowing of choice is a cost. Our loss of privacy has a cost. Snowdon told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he had leaked the details of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programme to “protect basic liberties for people around the world.”

Can we seek to redeem surveillance, quite apart from the necessary legal controls such as various Data Protection Acts? Many surveillance initiatives stem from valid social concerns: for example, health surveillance programmes, or tracking human smuggling operations, identifying paedophile rings or reducing crime on the streets. The only way it seems to me to prevent the reinforcing of an individualist conception of “autonomy or “privacy” is to recover a relational view of ourselves. Privacy must be grounded in an ethic of mutual trust and care.

Yes, I have an inviolable, subjective “core” of thoughts, feelings and practices that must be protected from coercion or manipulation; but since such thoughts, feeling and practices are socially formed, I must be open to their being questioned and criticized. And this applies to the surveillors as much as to the surveilled. Such an ethic must enable mutual transparency (within obvious limits), responsibility as well as liberty, and not generate either fear or complacency born of ignorance.

Given our corrupted humanity, powerful technologies tend to be used first for evil; and then when the powerful themselves suffer the fall-out, there are calls for their “regulation”. That is the best argument in support of the non-malicious, non-commercial “hacking” community. But who will save them from themselves, once they have tasted their own power to humble the mighty?

Following the brutal onslaught on Gaza in 2009, hailed by the Israeli government as a “military victory”, one of the wisest political voices in Israel, Uri Avnery, wrote: “What will be seared into the consciousness of the world will be the image of Israel as a blood-stained monster, ready at any moment to commit war crimes and not prepared to abide by any moral restraints. This will have severe consequences for our long-term future, our standing in the world, our chance of achieving peace and quiet.  In the end, this war is a crime against ourselves, too, a crime against the State of Israel.”

I have written so often on this Blog (particularly, 26 November 2014 and 09 April 2019) about the indifference of Western governments and publics towards the colonial aggression of the Israeli state that it depresses me to address this topic again, in the light of the recent events in Gaza.

What I will do is remind readers of 7 important facts which I hope they will share with others in their circles of influence.

(1) Israel is the last remaining European colonial power, which is why its aggression is not treated in the same way as that, say, of China or Iran. Whenever fresh violence breaks out, the US and the EU issue bland appeals for a ceasefire without attending to the obvious questions: “What event(s) triggered this violence?” What can the international community do to prevent such events from recurring?” “How many Palestinians were killed, and how many Israelis?” (The latter question will reveal just how disproportionate Israel’s military responses are, violating all “just war” principles encoded in international law and rules of military engagement.)

(2) Israel is the only country in the world that does not have internationally recognized borders. Just compare a map of Israel in 1948 with a present map. Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic, ideological and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples’ lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

Monoethnic, autocratic regimes in many countries (such as my own) look to Israel’s example in how to deal with their own intransigent ethnic and religious minorities. Seize land, re-settle it with members of the majority community, protect the latter by sending in an occupation army, label all attacks on the new settlers as “terrorist” or “extremist” acts and use them to justify further acts of repression.

(3) Far more Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish. Yet some Western media and politicians regularly confuse anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. (The latter is also a misleading term, as most Jews who settled in Israel have European rather than Semitic ancestry. Arabs are also Semites, yet attacks on Arabs- who include many Christians- are labelled anti-Muslim!)

(4) While insisting that everybody recognizes Israel’s “right to exist”, Israel will never recognize the Palestinians’ “right of return”, let alone their right to liberation and self-determination. Israel’s settlement and development programs in the occupied territories- all illegal, as Israel was informed in 1967 by its own highest legal authorities and affirmed later by the World Court- are designed to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

(5) Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jewish state”. Its own Arab population that carries Israeli passports are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and segregated people in their own land. So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

(6) Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute and (later) the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt, continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. Benjamin Netanyahu is a great friend of these American fundamentalist preachers and visits them on his trips to the US.

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you.

(7) As for the United States, there is a huge gap between public opinion and foreign policy. In relation to Israel, U.S policy since the Johnson era has been dictated by the hugely influential pro-Israel lobby (AIPAC) and the corporate-military sector. Many conscientious Americans oppose U.S. government policy and younger members of the Democratic party are far more outraged over Palestine than Biden and his generation and call for a halt to military and economic support to Israel. If the U.S. too were to become a properly functioning democracy, in which an informed public had a meaningful voice in policy formation, things may well change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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