By Uditha Devapriya
Intellectuals have become a disliked lot in Sri Lanka. This is largely because they have failed in their most basic task: the interpretation of society. It’s not that they can’t read numbers or that they can’t jump to the most obvious conclusions. It’s that they persistently refuse to do so long after it has become clear that they’ve got it all wrong.
We saw this in the local election two years ago, when it was predicted that the Podujana Peramuna would come second to the UNP. The results creamed everyone, and not just the parties, Mangala Samaraweera’s contorted arithmetic (counting a vague “anti-Rajapaksa vote”) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s even more contorted logic (that the results justified neither the UNP-SLFP nor the Joint Opposition) notwithstanding.
In his critique of intellectuals who kept on writing tirade after tirade against him, Booker T. Washington noted that while they understood theories, “they do not understand things.” They could quote Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and the Bible, but they never seemed to quote people. Now these intellectuals did have a point, an important one – Washington’s notion of industrial education for African-Americans, to them at least, didn’t combat or confront the structural causes of poverty within that community – but so did Washington: many of those critical of him, and his program, had barely acquainted themselves with the community whose interests they were apparently standing and fighting for.
The situation in Sri Lanka, today, is no different. I am amused whenever columnists try to make it out that the fight here, at present, is between Dictatorship and Democracy. Thus the Rajapaksas are placed in the first camp, all those opposed to him in the second. The irony is that these columnists argue that the Rajapaksas see the world in black-and-white terms – Us versus Them, Majority versus Minority, and so on – while themselves caving into black-and-white dichotomies. While the government is lambasted at every corner, and virtually every speech, remark, and observation by the president and his band are taken up and torn apart, all those ostensibly opposed to them are given blank cheques.
This is not how a democracy, even in a contemporary neoliberal sense, works. It’s certainly not how the United States works: despite being touted, justifiably, as an oligarchy sustained by a powerful corporate media (which in Chomsky’s judgment “manufactures consent”) and an even more powerful corporate lobby, there is space, no matter how small, to critique the Opposition (even if he’s someone like Joe Biden who has got the endorsement of big media outlets). Here, by contrast, there are no critiques. Only platitudes.
Hence the NGOs, the think-tanks, and the columnists, particularly in the English language media, have let the Opposition go scot-free. This can only be lamented.
It can’t be that the Opposition is perfect. It can’t be that these columnists hold the government to a higher standard than the Opposition either, since if you go through their essays from the last five years, you’ll notice that many of them were more concerned with attacking the Opposition than making legitimate criticisms of the then regime. So much did they cherish the ideal of democracy, in fact, that none of them saw anything wrong in that regime’s postponement of Local Government AND Provincial Council elections.
Given this, it comes to no surprise that they can’t read the writing on the wall. When the LG elections turned out in the Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP’s) favour, they pooh-poohed it by pointing at the anti-Rajapaksa vote. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidacy, they went to the courts against his dual citizenship (which turned out to be bogus). When Gotabaya Rajapaksa won, they claimed that minorities didn’t vote for him.
When that argument too fell flat on its face two weeks ago at the general election – the SLPP won seats in the North, the Central Province, and some Muslim areas, and secured huge majorities in Catholic areas, while Sajith Premadasa’s party, the SJB, failed to come third or for that matter fourth there – these commentators claimed, as they still do, that the number of pro-SLPP votes had reduced relative to the presidential election.
So yes, the intellectuals have failed. My guess is that they’ll continue to fail. To me, that is a much greater threat to democracy than big government.